In the days before the internet made the whole Geek Rock subgenre(s) possible, what did geeks do for music to call their own? Ask a non-geek and they’ll tell you we had Weird Al and had to be happy with that.
Well, I’ve been a Weird Al Yankovic fan since I was thirteen years old and got a copy of his second album (“Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D) on cassette at the end of grade 8. The man is talented, brilliant, and hilarious, and deserves multiple posts of his own, but he wasn’t the only Geek Rock available by a long shot.
Let’s hop into the Way Back Machine and drift back to the Stone Rock Age (the 1980s and my teen years). You’d be surprised what was out there for geeks. Sure, we listened to a lot of what everyone else listened to, and still do, but there was plenty of geek music hanging around if you were paying attention. Some of it was in disguise and some of it wasn’t, but a lot of it wasn’t as obvious as you’d think.
Prime example: Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is absolutely a geek anthem. Why? Because it was the end credits song of the movie Real Genius (which defined Geek Cinema for a generation, but that’s the subject of another post). Actually, I’d say we co-opted that entire sound track, but that was the big one—I can’t hear the song without thinking about the movie.
Over a few posts, I’m going to explore (mostly) 80s Geek Rock, offer a few thoughts on what made Geek Rock in the old days, why I love it, and how a lot of it holds up pretty well. Maybe we’ll even figure out how I define Geek Rock along the way. Maybe. There are a lot of reasons I might classify a song as geek. Subject matter is the big one, but not the only one.
For this first post, I’m going to toss three songs out there and see what everyone (or anyone) thinks. You’ll recognize all of them and not just because they still get played on the radio, depending on what station you’re listening to.
First up, “Ghost Busters” by Ray Parker Jr.
The tune was in your head even before you clicked play on the video, wasn’t it?
What makes it Geek Rock? I think the geek factor on this one is fairly obvious. Guest cameos and neon outlines aside, this is the theme song from the Ghostbusters movie and I’m reasonably certain that, geek or not, just about everyone over the age of five has seen the movie. Heck, one in five people alive in North America the year it released saw it in the theatre. A sequel, two cartoon series, and I’m not sure how many video games. Ghostbusters is a pop culture phenomenon/icon/fixture, but the release of the movie happened early in the Geek Era and marked something close to the beginning of the transition.
Who you gonna call?
“Coming Home” by Peter Schilling
Aside from the recent cover that tried to sell me an expensive car (nice to finally be the target market, I suppose), this is an interesting song. I don’t entirely get the tower of cars and roller skating waitresses motif in the video, but have to admit it gives some interesting imagery against the space race back drop. Long ago, I heard the story told in a documentary that Peter Schilling got mad about Bowie turning Major Tom from a hero into a junkie and so “Coming Home” was born. Wish I could confirm this story.
What makes it Geek Rock? Well, the space race may have been a matter of national pride in the US, and it may have been fighter jocks getting sent into orbit or to the moon (although they were a pretty smart bunch overall, don’t get me wrong), but it was the scientists and engineers who made it possible. The geeks.
Styx: Mr. Roboto
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.
What makes it Geek Rock? This song is all about identity and that’s at the heart of every geek’s psyche, or used to be. These days, it’s easy to be a geek or call yourself one, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the 80s, high school wasn’t the best place to be a geek even with the safety of numbers. There was plenty of teasing and abuse, sometimes physical, and you did what you had to do to get through. Sometimes you adapted so you could appear to fit in, at least on the surface, sometimes you hid who you really were, sometimes you kept to yourself, and sometimes you stood there and took whatever was being dished out because you knew it was finite and then you could get on with your day. Coping strategies varied by individual and by day and by tormentor. All of those strategies are in the lyrics for Mr. Roboto. That’s probably what keeps it on the playlist at so many radio stations: it speaks to all of us on some level. Give it a close listen.
So there’s a start. Next post, the subject matter will get a little geekier: Star Trek, Video Games, and Super Heroes.